Leonard Peltier is not exactly a household name in the U.S. But in the Soviet Union he ranks right up there with Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. While the President is in Geneva, the White House will be deluged with sacks of postcards mailed by readers of the Young Communist League newspaper demanding the release of that "well-known" political prisoner. The paper called on its readers "to raise our voices in defense of the human rights and freedom of those whose only 'fault' is to struggle against the genocide unleashed by U.S. authorities against the native population." Translation: in the looking-glass logic of superpower relations, Peltier, an American Indian serving two consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents, is to Soviet propagandists what dissident Physicist Andrei Sakharov is to the U.S., a symbol of flagrant disregard for human rights.
The Kremlin has peppered the U.S. with scattered human rights charges ever since the Sacco and Vanzetti case of 1920. But in the maneuvering leading up to this week's summit, the denunciations have reached new heights. The campaign represents a tactical shift by Moscow; while the Soviets still maintain their traditional stony attitude about Western interference in their own "internal affairs," they are now going on the counterattack. In reply to the continued U.S. criticism of Soviet emigration policies and Reagan's recent rebukes of the oppressive nature of Soviet society, the Kremlin under Mikhail Gorbachev has taken the offensive with a rancorous propaganda drive. Its goal is to paint the U.S. as a nation teeming with human rights violations that run the gamut from unemployment to genocide. "They used to deal with human rights criticism by sitting in cold silence," says one senior Western diplomat in Moscow. "Now the new leadership are tough and embattled and intend to match our criticism with criticism of their own."
Virtually every day, Soviet newspapers fulminate about rampant U.S. censorship, persecution of dissidents, forced labor, religious discrimination and telephone tapping. Film of homeless Americans sleeping on subway grates and bag ladies foraging through trash cans has become so standard on Soviet TV that at least a few viewers must be convinced that all of New York City consists of such unfortunates. Recalling the concentration camps of the Nazi era, a professor serving as a commentator for one show tells his audience, "The U.S. is going through a prison boom; camps for dissidents are hastily being built there."
One heavily hammered theme has been the bombing in Philadelphia last May of the headquarters of Move, a radical cult. "American authorities recently gave the whole world a demonstration of their democracy," TASS declaimed, "when they publicly slaughtered more than a dozen black-skinned inhabitants of Philadelphia and bombed a whole city block." The Soviet press, however, omits any mention of the fact that the mayor of Philadelphia is black and that the bombing has provoked much soul-searching in addition to searing criticism and lengthy hearings and investigations.